Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Cleaning as a Skill

[This post isn't in response to the recent discussion about the 'I would have got away with it...' cartoon - I've actually been thinking about it for some time, but you may find the links relevant.]

A lot of the defenses of the value of housework come from the perspective of those who do a lot of it. But I think it is just as important for such perspectives to come from those of us who don't do very much at all, and particularly those of us who find it difficult.

A couple of years ago I was living in a house with an old switchboard, the sort where you have to wrap fuse wire round two points. The fuses also happened to be unlabeled. At one point a fuse blew, and so I worked out which fuse was which by testing which lights/appliances when off when I removed various fuses, bought some fuse wire (which is surprisingly hard to find) and replaced the offending fuse.

When I mentioned this to friends, they were shocked that I hadn't called the landlord to send an electrician. Honestly, as someone who had spent half her childhood fiddling round with electric circuits (and though I've forgotten a lot of what I knew then, as may be evident from my vague description, it still makes an instinctive sense) the idea would never have occurred to me.

Yet I imagine a lot of people who couldn't understand why I didn't call an electrician would have been confused or quietly critical (or even loudly critical) if I paid someone to come in and do my vacuuming, and this independent of how much I would pay them. I find vacuuming really, incredible difficult. I literally haven't done it in years (my partner and I have a deal: she vacuums, I empty the vacuum). Yes, in my case I do have a diagnosed neurological condition that this is at least partially the result of, and that would make hiring a vacuumer more acceptable in many people's eyes, but I don't think my argument depends on that fact. Some people are just not good at housework.

I've struggled a bit with a workmate, who I think really does not understand how my struggling when it is my turn to deal with the office kitchen is in any way like her struggling with understanding html (which I find relatively easy). That's because some things, like cleaning, are assumed to be natural, instinctive, anyone can do them, and in particular women are expected to know how to clean without an instruction or effort.

Valuing these things as skills, which take ability and learning, does help lead to greater respect for those who do them, and whilst I do not think this is the cause of the financial disparity between, say, cleaning and other equivalent male occupations, dismissing it as unskilled is used as a justification for that financial disparity, which we need to counter. But it is also a step for those of us who struggle with these skills as seeing this not as a failing as a human being or laziness, but one skill set amongst others which we may lack or have to a lesser degree, and one ability amongst others that may not come naturally to us.

I am absolutely not saying that some people are born to do housework and others aren't. I am particularly wary of how that may be used to justify the greater portion of housework falling on women because they are 'naturally better at it' or some other such bullshit. To the extent that housework is necessary - and I am aware many people take it beyond this, which is their prerogative but not a universal standard - members of a unit need to come to a fair arrangement (which may include contracting of people from outside that unit) that takes account of everyone's skills and abilities, and people are going to need to put some effort into things they find hard, or learn new skills they lack. But I think recognising housework as a skill leads to more respect, and recognition of abilities, all round.


Trouble said...

Agreed. Not just cleaning too - it winds me up every time people discuss early childhood education and the conservative blokes come out with "why do you need qualified teachers, it's glorified babysitting", something that they clearly undervalue. You need quite a skill set to manage, entertain and educate young children, and you don't get it issued to you with your spare X chromosome.

Sandra said...

I love this post. Maybe I will have something more insightful to say in response later, but for the moment, I thought I'd share my enthusiasm. Thanks Anthea.

Rebecca said...

i like this post too. i get all tangled up about having returned to (nearly) full time paid work, and how my house is always a tip - we're talking piles of stuff un-put-away in every room, dirty toilets, dirty floors ... and that i'd like to pay someone (it's always going to be another woman, realistically) to come and help us out with that ... and then i think, how f*cking ridiculous, i'm working in an office, paying some other woman to help me keep my house clean ...

and all this with a very useful husband who is more particular than me about tidiness and cleanliness and does more housework, more cooking, more laundry, more vacuuming than me ...

stargazer said...

thank you so much for writing this. i hate doing the cleaning, so i don't. i've always paid to have the cleaning done. and it's not because i don't have the skills, it's because i just don't want to do it. because i'm a woman, i've copped a lot of flak for that & it makes me really angry.

i think there are two aspects here: recognition of the skills involved (& all that involves for paid and unpaid cleaning work), but also the inclination. i know other people choose to take responsibility for this aspect of home-making, but i hate being made to feel bad because i choose not to. i hate that, because i'm a woman, i'm expected to have some kind of nesting instinct that makes me biologically inclined towards home-making. that's nonsense.

and i think that's one of the things missing on this post & the previous one: the societal pressure to be a certain way, and the judgement that falls when you refuse to be that way. the equation of housework as women's work is just wrong. i don't think that belittles the women who choose to take up the major portion of housework, but equally, women should be free to not have to take on more housework than they feel inclined to.

anthea said...

Thanks for your responses everyone.

@Anjum I think for myself ability and inclination are very closely tied together here, which is probably why I didn't tease them out as much as I could have done. Will be having a think about this.

katy said...

"and i think that's one of the things missing on this post & the previous one: the societal pressure to be a certain way, and the judgement that falls when you refuse to be that way."

I never really thought of doing housework as being a choice, the examples I saw around me when I was growing up was of men doing work that wasn't particularly interesting or empowering and women working in the home because the paid work they could get tended to be even more shit than what was available to men (though my own household was a bit different because my mother spent years studying so we didn't really see her in terms of either definition of worker being used here, ie, in or out of the home). Anyway, so while choices were determined by wider structures, neither the men nor women around me seemed to have consciously pursued these, they seemed to have just ended up in their roles. On reflection I can think of examples of people who did not conform to their class/gender roles but at the time I was not aware of any stigma that came as a result of this, interesting point to consider now.

katy said...

This post made me think about how my husband and I always disagree about buying meals, he is always inclined to eat out because he thinks it is better to spend money than our time on preparing food. I don't enjoy cooking at all but I also don't see my time as being worth much so I tend to say we should cook for reasons of economy, it is an argument we have been having since we met and I realise is because we fundamentally disagree about how much our time is worth, it seems he values my time more highly than I do probably because he has always been able to sell his for more.

Muerk said...

I love this post too. Some people have a real knack for cleaning and there is actual skill in doing it well. Often cleaners are very low paid, they are usually women and often women of colour. I'm thinking of the housemaids in New York who protested wearing their housemaid uniforms.

I don't think we value this kind of work enough.

Maia said...

I love this post as well. Obviously we come from a very similar place in terms of struggling with housework. I realised when I moved out of my last place that cleaning actually makes me miserable. I'd been fine with packing and sorting. And the time came to clean I had an awesome friend round to help - and it was still horrible. Just hard and stressful, and in a way that I struggled to cope with.

And I'm lucky, because I'm sure there are people with similar issues who just have to suck it up and do it anyway - in their home or for pay. For whom the consequences of not doing housework are much more serious than living in chaos.

I have lots more thoughts about reproductive labour - I have this urge to talk about Donkeystoning, so I should probably write my own post. So I will just say YES! to your point about the political importance of appreciating cleaning as a skill.

Anonymous said...

I love my roomba, the robot vacuum. Costs around $600 at Harvey Norman.

Does it do as good a job as me? Probably not but it gets done more often. It takes an hour to do what I would do in ten minutes but I don't care. I push the button and go out and when I return the house is cleaner. It does under the bed which I never did and when it is finished it parks itself back on the charger. Wow.

Now I'm waiting for the one that empties its own bag.

me again

Carol said...

With respect to manual skills & gender: I think I wouldn't equate cleaning with mending a fuse. I DO think doing cleaning well is a skill, but for myself, I settle for doing it as well as I can, and when I have the energy and motivation for it.

But the problem I have with motivation for cleaning is that it's a repetitive task - something that needs to be done over & over again, and regularly.

Mending a fuse involves problem solving for an irregular and intermittant problem. I would equate this more with (the tradionally feminine allocation of) sewing.

For myself, I enjoy the problem solving tasks more than the repetitive routine ones, and am more likely to put energy into them. I also prefer mechanical tasks, eg ones involved with (in my younger days) servicing, maintenance and repair of my motorbikes, and (still today) looking after my bicycle.

Part of the skills that I have go back to early experiences and/or training. I spent a lot of my childhood with neighbourhood boys, making & fixing things like trolleys and other outdoor toys. But I also had to do sewing and cooking at school.

So, today when required, I am also able to mend and/or solve some practical problems by applying my training in (hand-)sewing stuff.

If aptitude comes into it, it's probably that I relate better to problem-solving tasks than to repetitively routine ones, however they are conventionally gendered.

Vacuuming, to me is one of the less onerous tasks - but I also have a small place so it doesn't take much time & just involves plugging in & switching on a machine. Cleaning and scrubbing is more hard and prolonged graft.

LudditeJourno said...

Wow - this is v interesting - because one of the most awful, relationship threatening arguments I've ever had with someone close to me was about her having no qualms in paying women to clean if her (male) partner wouldn't do his bit, and my feeling that option was not available to most people and therefore not in any way a political response to gendered splitting of work.
My bottom line on it was and is that paying someone to clean for you is fine in my opinion if they are paid at the same rate as you are. Then, I think, you are both valuing your own time (by doing what you want with it) and valuing the time of the person cleaning and making your space the way you want it to be (by valuing the skill as highly as your own).
My friend thought this was ridiculous because she has a very highly paid job, and cleaning is "just cleaning".
I like the approach you've taken here Anthea, thank you, more to think about.

anthea said...

Really interesting comments here.

@kat - a little tangental, but your comment made me think about how I was brought up to see some things as an inexcusable waste of money. One of them was taxis; I can't drive and I sometimes end up with an hour til the next bus. Even though the cost of a taxi is less than my hourly pay rate, I have the money for infrequent occasions, and end up spending a lot less than I would running a car, it was a big psychological leap to get over it. I think there are all kinds of things there around value of time and other things.

@Muerk Thanks for that link. Your first comment reminded me of something else - my aunt trained as a nurse when (and I'm not sure if this is still the case) learning to clean properly was very much part of the training, and it was always obvious and observed how much more easily she did it with that training.

@Maia Yes, exactly. I think this ties into my earlier comment of how much ability and inclination are interlinked. My friends cleaned out my last place and I am NEVER MOVING AGAIN.

@me again I have considered one of those, but I think I'm a bit nervous of (a) it becoming sentient (China Mieville fan here) and (b) it being chased, caught and disembowled by the cats. I think some - though not all - of the criticisms of hiring a cleaner would apply to that also.

stargazer said...

LJ i appreciate your point about paid cleaning not being a political response to the gendered splitting of work. on the other hand, as an individual woman, there's only so much energy available for battles on various fronts. and the battles on housework are epic, because there is plenty of it to be done. and when your partner is refusing to take responsibility, then it's a really constant battle - dishes, vacuuming, washing, cleaning the bathroom & toilet etc etc. of course you have the option to leave, but then you're doing it all yourself anyway but perhaps on lower income so couldn't afford to pay someone to do it. i'm just saying it's gets really difficult to fight that political battle in the home, especially when there are plenty of other battles that have to be fought as well.

but i do agree with your point of paying better for that work.

katy, i speak from my own experience of course so it's not universal. but definitely there are people who can be competitive as regards home-making activities and definitely judgemental of those who don't measure up. and it's definitely both men & women who do the judginess.

anthea said...

@Carol That is a really interesting consideration, thank you. I don't think changing a fuse and vacuuming are the same, but at the same time one of the things I want to tease out is that the skillsets needed for a particular task aren't always the ones that are obvious or recognised. As someone with a neurological/specific learning disability this is very apparent, in that vacuuming actually requires a lot of problem solving and sequencing, which are very difficult for me - for example, I need to work out where to plug the vacuum in, shift anything out of the way of the plug, open the door of the cupboard the vacuum's kept in, get the vacuum to the plug etc. I'm not sure how much this is not seen as problem solving because most people can do it without thinking about it, and how much the work is devalued. I'm aware these experiences might be hard for people to understand and not very well articulated - I'll try and write a proper post about them at some point.

Moz said...

Sorry if my perspective comes from never having lived alone in a two-adult house, but that's where I come from.

Personally I'd rather clean than pay someone, and it's partly because I'm stingy and partly because I'm not really comfortable buying personal services in general. I didn't like working as a cleaner (I lasted one day) and I can't imaginbe doing it except as a job of last resort.

For me, cleaning and tidying are two quite different things. By inclination my partner cleans and I tidy, which means that in our bedroom I nag her to tidy up (I call it the BPOPS - big pile of phuong stuff - and it will take over the whole room if I let it). In the rest of the house she nags me to clean, because even washing dishs is something I'd rather avoid. Unfortunately we have a housemate who "needs" to be told exactly what to do if he's to do any housework at all, but the other two just quietly do stuff. So it more or less works. But we will be going back to an explicit roster this week I think.

anthea said...

@LJ - my instincts are absolutely with you, and then when I think about your argument more I struggle. I do agree, from my perspective, about paying a cleaner the same as myself* (that's as someone who is on a decent income, no dependents and can withstand a fair bit of chaos) but I would very much struggle to make that argument to someone with significant disabilities on a lowish income. I also eat in restaurants staffed by, ride buses driven by and have my office cleaned by people earning significantly less than myself. You could say that in those cases I have much less control over what they're paid, and you're absolutely right, but I would also spend a whole lot less time thinking about it, and I do wonder if this feminist guilt over what we pay house cleaners is rooted just as much in a feeling we should really be doing the job as it is concern over the value of work/fair pay etc. I also feel that if you argue that cleaners should be paid the same rate as yourself, you should feel the same about baby sitters for social occasions, and I haven't come across that argument.

Short form - I agree from a personal perspective, but I think there are some attitudes about cleaning here that still need unpicking.

*I don't count my partner in this - so if you're reading don't get any fucking ideas ;P

Tamara said...

This is a really interesting discussion. Our family uses fortnightly cleaners who are a self employed male/female couple (no children of their own) for the following reasons:
1. I work outside home four days a week for good income. Partner does same 4 1/2 days for even better income.
2. We have two small children. we like to spend time with them doing fun things. They don't understand why chores need to be done yet.
3. We also like to do some things for ourselves eg walk, gym etc. Also necessary for our wellbeing.

So, we're quite busy and can afford it. We are able to do cleaning (up to a point as partner has a vulnerable back) and know how to, but prefer to spend that time doing other things.

We definitely see the skill and value in cleaning done well and we love having a clean home. I don't see how the nature of the work makes it different to other services I buy, just cause it's in my home. I don't see the logic in the argument that I should pay the cleaners what I earn. For one thing, I don't set my own wage, my boss does, and at the moment I have no ability to affect my income without having to work full time. Plus, as Anthea says, that argument would have to extend to all the services I buy since there's nothing magical about personal services.

Full disclosure - we use a nanny too, 3 days a week. Various reasons as above, plus, I'm sure my mental health would suffer at home full time. That's not for everyone.

anthea said...

I'm interested in the term 'personal services' that keeps coming up? It's not a term I use so I'm interested in how people define it. For those of you who are uncomfortable paying for personal services, what makes something a personal service? Would you classify a personal service and if you would and yet don't feel uncomfortable with it, is it just the fact you would struggle to do it yourself that distinguishes it from house cleaning, or is there something else?

(FWIW, I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with being uncomfortable - I don't think I'd feel okay with my house being cleaned professionally on a regular basis just because I'm very private and particular about my space. But when we make distinctions based on categories I think it's important we're clear on what they mean and why.)

Tamara said...

Good question Anthea. Actually, I only used the term because others used it for cleaning, I veer towards housecleaning not being a personal service. I'm not a very private person I suppose. I would use the terms more for things done to me personally eg haircuts, beauty therapy, counselling. Not to things I own.

LudditeJourno said...

Stargazer - oh I so know what you mean about not being the one responsible for holding up the gendered split of housework - and also how absolutely tedious it is to argue about that constantly with someone else uninterested in equity or negotiation. And also that women are judged about this in ways men never are. That's why it comes down to pay rates for me in that instance.
Anthea - yeah, you're right, the idea about pay works less well when reasons for being unable to do housework are about disability. Which brings us back to why this is a structural issue rather than an individual gender issue - because why would someone with significant disabilities be on a low income if not for the social discrimination against people with impairments. Why would the majority of cleaners in hotels be women of colour, if not for racism and sexism?
And I'm afraid I would take the argument way, way further and get rid of the idea that people driving a bus or serving food should not be well-paid. I'd abolish differential pay rates personally....but then I'm an unreconstructed lefty who should probably never be allowed to talk about capitalism ;-)
I doubt I've EVER been as well paid as I was as a teenage babysitter. Oh, the glory years of my income earning :-)

anthea said...

Oh LJ I completely agree about the fact people in various occupations should be better paid! (I sometimes have to stop myself making comments along the lines of "of course, we can't fix this without a revolution".) I just think (a)the tendency to try and rectify this by an individual action and (b) the focus on cleaning needs some unpicking.

Moz said...

I said "not really comfortable buying personal services in general" because there's a whole class of things that cross a line for me wrt to privacy and personal space. It's bad enough having a doctor poke me when I'm sick or broken without having someone move my stuff around when I'm not there or mess up my bike.

I'm using the term to mean basically anything involving coming into my home or body, and extending that to my bike because that's an extension of my body in quite a personal way (it hadn't really occurred to me until I was thinking about where the boundary is). There's also an element of "things I can do myself" and also "things I'm fussy about" (I won't pay for massages any more, for example, because I've never had a good experience from a massage).

It's also a term I recall hearing/seeing in the conext of labour market categories, but I'm not sure what the definition is there.

Moz said...

One thing that does complicate things for me/us is that my partner is currently not doing paid work on a regular basis. By choice, but it's interesting how our money dynamic has changed (she feels the lack of income more than I do, but then I had more savings - if I had as little saved as she does I'd be panicking).

And also how little the who-does-housework dynamic has changed. When I was unemployed I did a little more housework (mostly cooking), and that seems to be pretty much the case now the situation has flipped round.

I can also see how the gender dynamic in my primary relationship compares with the various other dynamics in our larger household. It's more common for males to be slack about housework or have to be told what to do, but the really awful mess-makers have all been women. Well, two in the last 5 years is hardly statistically relevant, but that's the number I've got. We've had probably 5 or 6 males who either don't do housework or only do it when told, but the "I see you cleaned the bathroom, now I must dye my hair" or "ooh, the kitchen is magically clean, I shall bake" ones have both been women.

We have discussed but never implemented the option of buying out of housework. Partly I think because it's only been presented as part of the "clean up after yourself" discussion, and partly the slobs have not been willing to pay. And it's easier to kick them out of a share house than deal with that sort of tension.

Anonymous said...

What I really, really hate is the go-together nature of childcare and housework. The assumption that if one has the inclination and aptitude for one they will also be keen on the other.

I love parenting and I don't mind some cleaning tasks but the day-to-day tidying and putting-away is a huge and unpleasant struggle which I usually lose.

Anonymous said...

I honestly think that some people are more equipped to do the repetitive household tasks better than others. I'm amazed by people who can clean every day without losing the will to live. Okay, exaggeration, but I do get melancholic if I do a lot of house-related work, and full-on depression if there's a lot of cleaning to do for a longer period of time (like when my child was younger). Doing repetitive, thankless work affects my mental health. I'd love to pay someone to do it.